The incident in question took place in 1820s Germany—amid the stuffy atmosphere that dominated life there between the defeat of Napoleon and the failed democratic uprisings of 1848, after the 1814–15 Congress of Vienna had restored Germany’s many independent kingdoms and duchies—with their often repressive laws—to the status they had enjoyed before the Napoleonic wars. And it was one of the most vicious blog wars in history. This was the nineteenth century, but it was indeed a blog war avant la lettre, and it ended in shattered reputations and voluntary exile for both its main protagonists.
The opponents were Count August von Platen (1796–1835), a gifted classicist poet and then literary celebrity and Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), now best known for his 1827 Book of Songs—not quite famous yet, but on his way to becoming the most important German poet of the Romantic era.
In 1827, Heine gave a platform—to use the modern parlance—to his friend Karl Immermann’s satirical verses, by publishing them as an appendix to Heine’s own work, The North Sea. Immermann’s poems mocked contemporary literary fads, including the craze for imitating Persian poetry, inspired by Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s 1819 collection, West–Eastern Divan. Immermann did not name his target, but Platen, then the chief author of that form of poetry, rightly understood the poems as a dig at him.
Count Platen, it seems, was a thin-skinned man. The following year, he published a response: a massive satirical play in the manner of Aristophanes, entitled The Romantic Oedipus. Immermann is its main target, but Platen also has some choice words for Heine, pertaining mostly to the latter’s Jewish origin. He calls Heine “the great Petrarch of the Sukkot” and accuses him of smelling of garlic.
Both Immermann and Heine responded. While Immermann’s answer, though scathing, merely took aim at Platen the poet, Heine went further. The accusation that Heine was Jewish had serious implications. Under Napoleon, German Jews had been granted equal rights, but after the Congress of Vienna many German states, including Bavaria, where Heine lived, had backtracked on this. Three years earlier, in 1825, Heine had converted to Christianity, to avoid the social and legal opprobrium faced by Jews. He was not yet fully established as an author, and, as a trained jurist, he hoped to obtain a position as professor of law at the University of Munich. Platen’s words, then, were not just a petty personal attack; they were a threat to his career.
Platen, a closeted gay man, had clearly forgotten that people who live in sukkot shouldn’t throw stones.
Platen’s sexuality was an open secret to anyone who read his verse with an attentive eye, but, of course, it could not be publicly acknowledged in polite society and Platen himself only spoke of it in code and euphemism. Homoerotic themes were common in Persian poems, so imitating them afforded him plausible deniability. Toning down the eroticism of the originals to the expression of platonic “friendship” added another layer of defence. When Platen wrote a more openly sensual poem, he often left the gender of the poem’s speaker ambiguous. If push came to shove, he could claim that he was assuming the voice of an oriental maid pining for her lover.
But this backfired spectacularly when Heine published his book, The Baths of Lucca which appeared in 1830, two years after The Romantic Oedipus (things proceeded at a more leisurely pace back then), which outed Platen as a homosexual.
Heine claimed that he brought up his opponent’s sexuality not as a cheap comeback, but to make a more pertinent point: because Platen could not freely express his feelings, he could not help but produce sterile, inferior poetry. He even professed sympathy for Platen as one against whom, in Platen’s own words, “duty and custom have conspired.” But Heine must have known what a deadly weapon he was wielding. The Baths of Lucca is one of the most vitriolic, even inhumane, satires in history. It was written with the intent to destroy and the knowledge that he would probably succeed.
But Count Platen, despite his insistence on the classical form, treats his subject in a far more romantic, veiled, longing and even sanctimonious vein—which is rather hypocritical, I must say. For the Count often likes to cloak himself in pious feelings, he avoids the precise sexual terms; only the initiated are allowed to see things clearly; he believes that he can conceal his meaning from the hoi polloi just by occasionally leaving out the word friend [meaning “boyfriend” here], just like the ostrich who thinks himself well hidden when he sticks his head in the sand, leaving only his rump visible. Our right honourable bird would fare better if he stuck his rump in the sand and let us see his head. [Editor Iona Italia’s translation.]
Neither Heine nor Platen did themselves any favours with these antics. Heine was decried as a former Jew in reactionary circles, while fellow progressives criticised the unsportsmanlike nature of his attack on Platen. He found himself unable to obtain employment in Germany and left for France the following year, never to return except for a few short visits. Platen was in Italy when Heine published his attack. He chose to remain there until his untimely death five years later.
Platen’s works have been largely forgotten today. So, for that matter, have Immermann’s. Heine, on the other hand, is one of the most important German authors of all time. Anglophone readers will be most familiar with his Romantic early poetry, which has been translated and set to music many times. In Germany, however, his legacy is more varied. It includes the Heine of later years who renounced Romanticism and became a pioneer of the realist and naturalist movements of the second half of the nineteenth century; Heine the caustic social critic and the staunch opponent of censorship and authoritarianism; and Heine, the friend and collaborator of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
In Germany, you are less likely to hear quotations from the Book of Songs than from Heine’s great satirical epic Germany. A Winter’s Tale. Written in 1844 and inspired by his first return to his home country after thirteen years, it is a biting portrayal of a reactionary, close-minded Germany. Its cynicism about state propaganda and official piety has resonated with liberals and leftists since its publication. Heine’s identity as an exile, who views his own country with both scorn and nostalgia, is integral to this work. Germany. A Winter’s Tale would probably never have been written if Heine had been a professor of law at Munich. In fact, he might not have written many of his other works—not just because he would have viewed things from a different perspective, but also because he would not have needed to write for a living and probably would have had little time to write at all. The Platen affair thus had a lasting impact. German literature might have been very different, had it not been for ten lines of mocking verse.
The Platen affair is more than just an example of the ways in which great artists can be fallible people. It reminds us of an inconvenient truth: minorities can discriminate against each other. Heine and Platen both belonged to oppressed groups, yet they used this fact to viciously attack each other. While it’s always tricky to make out an author’s true opinion in a satirical piece, it seems clear that they both harboured genuinely bigoted sentiments: Platen was antisemitic and Heine homophobic. And yet each felt morally superior to the other.
This is what I call the flipside of intersectionality. As originally conceived, intersectional theory makes a valid point: a person may belong to multiple disadvantaged groups and experience discrimination from multiple directions. The theory’s first proponent, Kimberlé Crenshaw, uses the example of a black woman, who may be discriminated against for being black, for being a woman or for being a black woman. Thus, her experience will differ from that of a black man or a white woman, who may experience their own kinds of discrimination. The obvious corollary of this is that a black man might be sexist against women and a white woman racist against black people, despite both being targets of discrimination themselves.
This is not exactly an outlandish claim. But, ironically, this implication of one of intertextuality’s core tenets has been furiously disputed. For instance, some assert that black people are incapable of being racist, dismissing evidence to the contrary by redefining racism as “prejudice plus power.”
The reason for such contortions, I think, is that progressive theorists are aware of another logical inconsistency that threatens their conceptions of group identity and power hierarchies. Once you admit that minorities can discriminate against each other, you come perilously close to admitting the ultimate heresy: bigotry is a property of one’s character, not of one’s skin. Incidents like the Platen affair demonstrate this clearly.
 “Graf Platen hingegen, trotz seinem Pochen auf Klassizität, behandelt seinen Gegenstand vielmehr romantisch, verschleiernd, sehnsüchtig, pfäffisch—ich muß hinzusetzen: heuchlerisch. Denn der Graf vermummt sich manchmal in fromme Gefühle, er vermeidet die genaueren Geschlechtsbezeichnungen; nur die Eingeweihten sollen klarsehen; gegen den großen Haufen glaubt er sich genugsam versteckt zu haben, wenn er das Wort Freund manchmal ausläßt, und es geht ihm dann wie dem Vogel Strauß, der sich hinlänglich verborgen glaubt, wenn er den Kopf in den Sand gesteckt, so daß nur der Steiß sichtbar bleibt. Unser erlauchter Vogel hätte besser getan, wenn er den Steiß in den Sand versteckt und uns den Kopf gezeigt hätte.”